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Major League Soccer Week in review: Round 31

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Less than a month remains in the regular season, and the playoff races remain tight as rush hour traffic on the 405. Here’s what you need to know about Round 31, which finished with an usually busy Sunday foursome of matches.

The big results

So many, really, considering playoff races in each conference that simply refuse to yield all that fascinating congestion.

But the big-big result was surely Portland’s 1-0 win over the two-time defending champion LA Galaxy helps establish Caleb Porter’s team as a real contender. The Timbers are learning now to grind out results, with two 1-0 wins at home over Western foes lately.

Tim Cahill’s second half equalizer gave the Red Bulls a useful 1-1 draw in Seattle, where the Sounders fumbled away numerous chances to put away a side missing its its top attacker (Thierry Henry) and top defender (Jamison Olave). Seattle retains the inside track on Supporters Shield (based on the number of games remaining), but it was a result the Red Bulls can take pride in.

Columbus’ surprising 4-2 win in Dallas, the Crew’s second consecutive road win, was massive in the playoff jostle. The Crew looked so close to dead a few weeks ago, but a string of impressive results has kept interim coach Brian Bliss and his troops among the post-season hopefuls. Oh, and it was also was probably a knockout punch for FC Dallas, now five points out of the race.

The “controversial” decision – that wasn’t a bit controversial

LA Galaxy players and coaches, reinforcing that sense of entitlement that has become so familiar through the Bruce Arena years in Southern California, were absolutely apoplectic about a late Robbie Keane goal that was waved off, judged offside, in Portland. And it was a swell strike, a crisp near-post header off Landon Donovan’s precision free kick service.

But replays demonstrated that Keane was offside, just as the referee’s assistant correctly ruled.

We get on the men in the middle a lot on this site, so it’s only fair to point out when they get a very close, and quite important decision absolutely correct. Job well done, guys. Here’s that one:

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The most surprising result

Philadelphia was perhaps one more big punch from being knocked plum out of this fight, having fallen from second all the way to seventh. So going into Sporting Kansas City and coming away with a 1-0 win (over a team still thinking “Supporters Shield”) was easily the big upset of Round 31.

The most impressive result

It’s not like Real Salt Lake had much of a choice, surely needing to trust the reserves Saturday night in Vancouver. With the U.S. Open Cup final coming up Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL manager Jason Kreis filled his lineup at BC Place with young talent and backups – and what a night it was for his club when the reserves came through with a 1-0 win.

So the starters are rested for Tuesday’s huge match, the team remained up near the top of the West and Vancouver … well, Martin Rennie’s team is left to rue the squandered opportunity.

The top tactical change

A goal down, Houston got aggressive on the road, subtracting a defender in favor of an extra attacker in a 3-5-2 look. It paid off quickly as Will Bruin found goal for the equalizer in a 1-1 draw at New England. By splitting the points, not only did Houston keep the inside track on a playoff spot (the Dynamo schedule ahead is favorable compared to other Eastern Conference playoff chasers), but Dominic Kinnear’s team simultaneously prevented one of its pursuers from picking up two additional points.

Oh, the Dynamo has done something quite similar before, and somewhat famously so.

The Golden Boot chase

source:  Saturday’s match at Toyota Park outside Chicago didn’t just have playoff implications (like so many of Week 31 contests did), it also featured the league’s top two scorers. Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio scored once, but top pursuer Mike Magee from Chicago slotted home a pair. So Magee cut the gap to one. The update list of MLS top scorers is on the right.

Caleb Porters great choice

Ryan Johnson has been the Portland Timbers first-choice striker for most of the season. So the decision by manager Caleb Porter to give young Argentine Maximiliano Urruti the start in such a meaningful match Sunday afternoon at rainy, wind-swept Jeld-Wen Field was a bit of a gamble. Urruti, 22, made his manager look good, scoring the game’s only goal in the 1-0 result mentioned above.

The weekend’s huge boo-boo

Montreal’s attackers eventually bailed out their goalkeeper, but it looked for a while like Troy Perkins embarrassing mistake in the back was going to be the difference in an important Eastern Conference clash.

Perkins, Montreal’s veteran goalkeeper, tried to get a little cute and evade Magee inside his own penalty area. Big. Mistake.

Yes, Magee fouled the Impact goalkeeper, but that hardly excuses such a blunder, a “howler” in the vernacular. Montreal’s subsequent equalizer made the final 2-2 at Toyota Park. Here’s the play:

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Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.